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Elizabethtown and Story as Conflict

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I was intrigued as I read a recent email newsletter from Hollywood Lit Sales which featured a critique of Elizabethtown by Tom McCurrie. McCurrie is a former development executive, as well as a story analyst, screenwriter, and screenwriting teacher. In the critique, he focused on why he believed Elizabethtown failed to connect with audiences, and in his opinion the film’s principal flaw was that it lacked a cohesive sense of conflict.

“Bloom tries to off himself in the beginning, which provides a nice inner conflict with life-and-death stakes, the highest stakes there are. But once he heads to Kentucky, Bloom never tries to commit suicide again, nor does he even talk about it, except for one inference in a speech to Dunst late in the film. This particular conflict has disappeared, along with the tension, and interest, it could have created.

So let’s look at the external conflict, the one between Bloom and his Kentucky relatives over whether the father should be cremated or not. Family feuds are often like driving by a grisly car accident — truly nasty but hard to ignore. Unfortunately, before this feud can boil over into something interesting to watch, Bloom reads the Riot Act to his relatives in one short scene, telling them his father is going to be cremated, end of story. The relatives shrug their shoulders in acceptance, everybody is one big happy family again, and that is the end of this particular conflict as well.

Since at its heart ELIZABETHTOWN is a romance, the film’s third conflict involves Bloom and Dunst’s relationship. Now whether it’s a romantic drama like ROMEO AND JULIET or a romantic comedy like WEDDING CRASHERS, the tension, and interest, in a romance comes from whether the lovers will be able to overcome the obstacles in the way of them living happily ever after. The problem with ELIZABETHTOWN is that Bloom and Dunst have no obstacles between them whatsoever.”

Now, I’ve often told people that in my opinion, the essence of story can be boiled down into a simple phrase: character in conflict. You need a character; you need a conflict. Without either, you don’t have a story. You can have lots of characters or you can have only one; the conflict can be internal or external. But you need them both. “Boy meets girl” is a situation; “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl” gives us the building blocks of a story. Or, as I believe Jared Wilson had as one of his “quotes of the moment” over at his Mysterium Tremendium blog, “The cat sat on the mat isn’t a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.”

Moreover, cinematic conflict is often different than literary conflict. A novel permits the author with opportunity to explore the inner landscape of its characters; often, we learn of the “real” conflict in novels not through the characters’ external actions but rather through their unspoken thoughts. In film, it is almost impossible to internalize conflict in the same way. While some films utilize voice over narration in an effort to give audiences a glimpse of a character’s inner monologue, only a few films successfully incorporate the technique. Instead, film presents it audiences with the same sort of dilemma we have in the so-called “real world.” We are really only able to understand a cinematic character’s motivations by what they do, and perhaps by what they say (or the subtext of what they’re saying). And if they talk for too long, well – we tune them out.

As such, screenwriters are often told to avoid internal conflict, or to externalize that conflict, perhaps by projecting the internal debate into an external one. As Alfred Hitchcock once famously remarked, “Drama is life with the dull bits left out.” In a cinematic context, many of the “dull bits” often include moments of internalized conflict where the character might otherwise remain in statis for a signficant period of time.

Consider Pride and Prejudice for a moment. I would suggest that in the cinematic versions of Jane Austen’s novel, the external manifestations of the money and class distinctions between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy become far more important because they are the only way the audience actually sees the problem in action. Whereas Austen’s novel might have permitted her omnisicent narrator the luxury of informing readers about the problems through narrative exposition, in a film the audience only learns from what it sees on screen. Thus, while the encounters between Elizabeth and Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine, and others are an integral part of the novel, they arguably have even more thematic importance in the context of a film.

At the same time, I think that a Westernized – or perhaps Americanized – perspective on the external nature of conflict in film may well lead us to conclude that specific formulas are required in the presentation of conflict. The emphasis which is placed on externalizing conflict and likewise continually “raising the stakes” in a story sense has a tendency to lend not only a sense of familiarity to our stories but might render them stale after a while. I do believe that there is room for experimentation in the area of conflict presentation, even if it seems somewhat alien to our palattes. In Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, he makes a very interesting observation about one of the differences between some Japanese films and the typical American film – namely, the idea of opposing shots.

One of the mainstays of American cinema (even though audiences may not be aware of it) is how a shot is constructed so as to signal conflict. For example, one of Hitchcock’s early films opens with contrasting shots of legs walking through a busy train station. As edited, we see two pairs of legs walking in opposite directions – a shot of the guy coming from the right, then a shot of the guy coming from the left. The juxtaposition of the two suggests the subsequent conflict when they ultimately collide. American film uses this type of technique frequently to signal similar perceptions. Richie writes:

“Shots which are compositionally similar are thought to confuse, though [a particular sequence in a Japanese film] is proof that this is not necessarily so. The theory about oposing shots seems to be based upon a Western assumption that narratiave can proceed only through conflict and confrontation, compositionally as well as otherwise. The idea of a narrative proceeding through harmony and similarity, not often encountered in Western cinema, is seen again and again in Japanese movies.”

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me back to Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and the idea of conflict. To my way of thinking, Crowe’s movies have often been marked by an unusual conflict arc. From Say Anything forward, his films have rarely featured the generally linear, constantly escalating conflict line that is perhaps more “typical” of American film. For example, one of my favorite romantic films is Moonstruck, written by John Patrick Shanley and directed by Norman Jewison. Not only does the film feature some wonderful performances (Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, Danny Aiello, John Mahoney, etc.; it was undoubtedly Cher’s best film and while I occasionally find Nicholas Cage a bit unbelievable as Ronny, in general I thought he did a good job), it is also what I would characterize as a more “standard” plotline.

This is not to discount Moonstruck at all; instead, it is to say that it features a tautly constructed storyline that continually raises the stakes in the conflict. Cher’s Loretta starts out agreeing to marry Johnny, a guy she doesn’t love; then she falls for his brother while Johnny’s away. Not only does every scene in the final film somehow underscore the overall themes, but it generally escalates toward the climax, where Loretta, Johnny, and Ronny all bring the story to its final conclusion. Crowe’s films tend to meander a bit more. For example, Say Anything, which was done two years after Moonstruck, has elements of traditional romantic comedy but subverts them somewhat in a way that many people find quite realistic.

While the two leads (played by John Cusack and Ione Skye), are your typical mismatched couple, and the girl’s overprotective father (played by the versitile John Mahoney) is fairly regarded as a stumbling block or obstacle to their relationship, the narrative doesn’t quite follow the standard escalation of the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” tale. This is most notable toward the end of the film, when Cusack has essentially regained the girl. Instead of ending on this note, the film addresses another conflict – namely, the girl’s relationship with her father, who has by this point ended up in jail as a result of certain tax-related shenanigans. Cusack’s character attempts to broker a reconciliation between the two (a rather ironic reality given the father’s earlier resentment of the relationship). Even in this scene, however, Crowe does not offer the audience a completely “happy” resolution; instead, it is somewhat bittersweet.

At the same time, I think that James Beardinelli says it quite well in a review of the film:

[A]lthough James [Mulhoney] isn’t fond of Lloyd [Cusack], he doesn’t engage in all sorts of devious Machiavellian machinations to drive him away from Diane [Skye], nor does he ever turn into a heartless brute.

What I am driving at is that Crowe’s perspective of conflict is often less externalized than might be “traditional.” The conflict in Say Anything is ultimately less about the external obstacles (the girl’s objecting father, the possibility that she might go away to England to study) and more about the internal issues: will Lloyd muster the internal fortification to ask the “girl of his dreams” out, and once he does, will he manage to keep her? Can he actually get out of his own way long enough to develop and maintain the relationship he wants?

Personally, I think Crowe’s films generally feature this type of more internalized sense of conflict. As Tom McCurrie himself notes, Elizabethtown is something of a riff on Crowe’s earlier success with Jerry Maguire (i.e., hotshot learns that there are more important things in life than money, fame, or success). While there is nominally a question in Jerry Maguire of whether Jerry will become successful as an independent agent with only one client, the principal conflict is about Jerry himself: having had his “moral epiphany” at the beginning of the film regarding his work as a sports agent, will he manage to have a similar revelation about his personal life? Will he wake up and smell the coffee before the closing credits? Ultimately, one has to say that the only obstacle to Jerry’s relationship with Dorothy (Rene Zellweger) is Jerry himself.

Crowe’s films arguably represent a distinct form of what I’ll call for now emotional realism. He undoubtedly recognized the possibility of stretching out the conflict over over the remains of the main character’s father in Elizabethtown; he could have certainly introduced a “love triangle” to further complicate the relationship between Bloom and Dunst. He didn’t, and I actually think this is consistent with his prior work. The conflict in his films is typically somewhat elliptical and episodic, thus emphasizing what is undoubtedly an internal conflict in an unusual fashion (unusual, at least, when compared to the general flow of American film). I think that when we look at the externalized conflicts in the film – be it Bloom’s contemplation of suicide, the encounter with the family members over cremation of his father, or even his relationship with Dunst – Crowe isn’t interested in escalating the events in accordance with what we might call the “standard” formula.

Instead, these episodes are all aspects of the character’s growth. It is rare in our lives for the A plot (i.e., the romance) to be wrapped up at the same time as the B plot (the suicide attempt or the fight over dad’s remains), but that is sort of the standardized routine for Hollywood films, which likes everything to play out and wrap up within moments of the climax. I’m always reminded of the end of Die Hard when I think of this: not only does John McClane kill Hans, he gets his wife back (if we ignore the storylines of the sequels), the obnoxious reporter gets decked, and the helpful cop gets to demonstrate his worth by shooting a bad guy – all within a couple of minutes of screen time.

That’s the way of the typical Hollywood film: have an A plot and at least one subplot and try to develop the subplot so that it wraps up within moments of the principal storyline. Since my daughters are such big fans of Princess Diaries II, one need only look at that film to see another illustration of this idea. The principal storyline is about the princess and her need to have a husband or lose her crown. One of the film’s subplots involves her grandmother’s romance with her security chief. When the princess’ marriage ceremony is interrupted and ultimately cancelled, grandma steps in and gets married herself. Within moments, the guy who had been after the princess’ crown is declaring his love and everybody’s got that “happy happy joy joy” thing going on.

In general, I don’t believe Crowe has really ever done this in his films; there tends to be an ebb and flow of small conflicts and subplots which are often resolved before the film’s climax. They are often simply a progression of the character’s internal growth and development; in essence, they become building blocks, much like the conflicts many of us face on the road of life. I personally think that he isn’t looking to tell stories in the traditional way, even if – as McCurrie suggests – this means that audiences might be a bit less likely to embrace his films. A quick perusal of Box Office Mojo tells us that Crowe’s films have rarely been huge box office hits: for example, Say Anything made all of $21 million worldwide. While Almost Famous is frequently considered an excellent film by its fans, it only made $32 million in the U.S. (and a total of $47 million worldwide) on an estimated production and marketing budget of $85 million. His big success came with Jerry Maguire, which grossed a sizeable $273 million worldwide, but which arguably features much of the same elliptical, internalized conflict found in Elizabethtown. The earlier film, however, featured some compelling performances and might well have generated quite a bit of buzz from the involvement of Tom Cruise.

Ultimately, I’m not certain that the forms of conflict depicted in Elizabethtown are the driving reason why the film has performed more like Almost Famous or Say Anything at the box office (to date, it has earned some $19 million domestically). I personally think that the film reflects the same sort of emotionally realistic, episodic conflict that Crowe has utilized in the majority of his films. One is certainly free to like them or not (I would say, for example, that I prefer the classically constructed Moonstruck to Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, or Elizabethtown) but I also think we have to recognize that Crowe appears to be consciously seeking an alternative to the linear, escalating conflict structure of many films.

Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.

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About Bill Wallo

  • http://www.filmdailies.com Krasimir [FilmDailies.com]

    I decided not to see it based on the trailer… What you’re saying about the lack of conflict is pretty evident, even in the trailer.